ETHICS OPINION COULD AFFECT ELECTED CITY OFFICIALS
A recent advisory opinion issued by the Texas Ethics Commission, Opinion No. 484, calls into question whether elected officials, including elected city officials, may have their transportation, meals, and lodging expenses paid or reimbursed by a corporation or labor organization in return for addressing an audience or participating in a seminar.
The opinion first concludes that such expenses are often permissible under the Penal Code’s prohibition against illegal gifts and under state lobbying laws, provided the speaking opportunity is more than merely perfunctory. This was established law.
What is new about the opinion is that it raises the question of whether such payments of expenses by a corporation or labor organization might be a violation of state campaign finance laws. The opinion concludes that such payments are violations of campaign finance laws if the elected official’s services are “in connection with” his or her duties or activities as an officeholder.
Here’s a hypothetical example: Acme Corporation invites Mayor Smith to speak at Acme’s annual convention and offers to pay the mayor’s hotel and mileage expenses. If the purpose of the speech is found to be in connection with the mayor’s duties (which will often be the case), the payment may be an illegal campaign contribution despite the fact that it would otherwise be legal under the gifting and lobbying statutes.
City officials that are offered free or reduced transportation, meals, and lodging for any purpose are strongly advised to consult with local counsel and/or contact the Texas Ethics Commission directly prior to accepting those offers.